BioPharm Executive: Biotech Money Goes to Democrats (Plus the Stupid Drug Name Olympics)

Published: Aug 27, 2008

Biotech Money Goes to Democrats
(Plus the Stupid Drug Name Olympics)

It's a small sign of the times.

When he was a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Jim Greenwood had a reputation as a social moderate and a fiscal conservative--somebody who could work across the aisle with Democrats. Now, as the head of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), he needs to grease the wheels of the legislative process, whoever is in the driver's seat. And that means crossing the aisle more and more often.

BIO has long leaned toward moderate Republicans in both its leadership and in its contributions. Its first president, Carl Feldbaum, was former chief of staff to Arlen Specter. He handed over the reins to Greenwood in January 2005.

In the 2004 election cycle just prior to Greenwood's appointment, BIO gave just 24% of its political action committee contributions to Democrats. By 2006, that had grown to 38%. In 2008, it has crept to a majority of contributions at 51%.

There's little reason for surprise. BIO may not love crusaders like John Dingell (D-Mich.) or Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who generally take a dim view of the drug industry, nor favor those pushing more aggressive versions of biogeneric legislation, most of whom are Democrats. But BIO has also taken positions that put it at odds with current Republican leadership--for instance, wanting greater funding for FDA. More than this, however, BIO is just playing to political realities: Democrats control Congress, and that looks unlikely to change come November. The run for the White House is a close call, but that could well go to Democrats too, in which case BIO wants to be seen as a friendly force.

Interestingly, the recipient of the single biggest contribution from the BIO PAC in this cycle is Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who just introduced legislation (S. 3408) to establish a new Health Care Comparative Effectiveness Research Institute--a national center that could potentially guide big decisions about the drugs that Medicare/Medicaid will and won't pay for.

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But enough of that. Let's take out a moment to salute those life sciences companies who have taken ridiculous product names to an internationally competitive level. The past month alone has raised the bar for future generations. Once content with the merely awkward or obtuse, marketing departments have pushed ahead into the realm of sublime stupidity.

A venerable marketing strategy is to come up with a trade name that not-so-subtly communicates a marketing message. This probably goes back at least to the days of snake oil hawkers, but the allergy drug Claritin is a nice, familiar example. Here's how it works: Claritin? Why, surely that will clear me up! You can see the appeal.

It's better yet if the name sounds like it maybe should be a word. Bristol-Myers Squibb's bipolar disorder drug Abilify ("a medicine to help you move forward") is good example. If Claritn can clarify, why can't a drug abilify? For that matter, why couldn't an erectile dysfunction drug embiggen? You get the idea.

Abilify is a strong contender, but the new winner in this category goes to a drug not yet on the market: TauRx's Alzheimer's candidate Rember, which made a lot of headlines this month. It combines the appeal of a near-word with a blunt reminder of what it's supposed to help with, and manages to be just slightly offensive by seeming less like a trade name than a hillbilly misspelling. Hey, did ya r'ember your medicine? You didn't? Overall prize: Bronze.

Those who crave a little more subtlety will appreciate the Sanofi Aventis drug Apidra, on the market for several years but recently approved for an expanded label in Europe. As the Placebo Journal pointed out, the name is essentially Pig Latin for "rapid." Yes, this fast-acting insulin may be apid-ray, but one suspects the marketing department was even faster in stamping a brand on the product. Overall prize: Silver.

Finally, for those who don't want any subtlety at all, there is our grand prize winner, AcipHex. Eisai's heartburn drug isn't new, but it won an expanded label from FDA on June 30 and has a new ad campaign. Remember that the "pH" is pronounced as an "F" and just say the name out loud. Then, for extra fun, look up the list of side effects. Overall prize: Pure gold.

--Karl Thiel

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